Asbestos Use and Exposure on Merchant Marine Vessels

Although the United States Merchant Marine fleet was once essential to our wartime efforts and to international commerce, the people that worked on the fleet were exposed to extremely dangerous working conditions. Their varied and constant exposure to asbestos on these ships placed these personnel at a high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma.

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About U.S. Merchant Marine Ships

Employees of the United States Navy worked extensively in asbestos-containing environments throughout the 20th century. During peacetime and wartime alike, the Merchant Marine Fleet was central to the prosperity of the nation.  When the United States was at war, the fleet was utilized to equip troops with the supplies they needed.

In peaceful years, the ships were still needed for the import and export of goods in foreign and domestic commerce.

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Before the commencement of the first World War, more than 90% of the United States’ foreign commerce was transported on European ships—primarily from the U.K. and Germany. However, the war made it evident that the U.S. needed their own fleet. This led to an expansion in American shipping, beginning with an emergency shipbuilding program that began in 1917.

The expansion continued in the years after World War I and by the early 1920s, the U.S. had surpassed the U.K. for merchant fleets. More than 700 large steel freighters and almost 600 smaller sized freighters had been built.

Many of these ships were used for intercoastal trade along the Panama Canal, newly minted in 1914. The ships carried metal, machines and industrial cargo west, while transporting lumber back east. The cost efficiency of this kind of trade was significantly cheaper than rail transport, making it an optimal method for trade during this part of the century.

Merchant Marines During World War II

By the time World War II had arrived, the United States merchant marine had a new purpose. The ships were used in a variety of military operations throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The government introduced yet another large-scale emergency building program that led to the creation of almost 5,800 new vessels.

Post-World War II, foreign services on the main trade routes continued to thrive. Domestic shipping declined slightly in favor of railway transportation and trucking.

Asbestos Use in Merchant Marine Vessels

Although an impressive fleet, the United States Merchant Marine vessels were rife with asbestos.

Asbestos-containing products and materials could be found in a variety of places, including:

  • Boilers
  • Turbines
  • Pipes
  • Oil burners
  • Insulation

High Asbestos-Risk Occupations on Merchant Marine Vessels

Merchant mariners encountered plenty of risks on the job, but asbestos posed a long-term health hazard that presented itself in many places aboard these ships. Although many merchant mariners encountered asbestos in the machinery, engines, furnaces and boilers, certain workers were more likely to be dangerously exposed.

Because asbestos is most dangerous when it is disturbed, the mariners who were required to handle or disrupt asbestos-containing products were more likely to ingest its fine fibers and develop asbestos-related illnesses.

Ship Engineering and Maintenance

Some of these workers included the engineers responsible for installing or fixing the boilers, pipes, engines, pumps and oilers. When performing repairs, these engineers often had to encounter asbestos that had deteriorated or crumbled.

Airborne asbestos in boiler rooms and the engine room resulted in many workers being exposed, due to the small and close working quarters.

Secondhand Exposure

Of course, workers in all positions on the ship ran the risk of being exposed. Secondhand asbestos exposure sometimes occurred when workers or families breathed in the asbestos fibers that had gathered on another’s clothing. The pipes that were insulated with asbestos also ran throughout the ships, causing potential for exposure just about anywhere.

Shipyard Workers

The workers that built the ships also suffered a significant risk of exposure to asbestos during the building process. These workers did not have the protective gear that is required to handle friable asbestos today.

It’s important to note that even current merchant marine vessels may feature boilers built in or before the 1970s. As a result, those working in proximity to these boilers or performing repairs on them still encounter the hazards of handling asbestos-containing products.

Help for Merchant Mariners With Mesothelioma

The dedicated workers that helped build and run these ships during the vessels’ prime are at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses.

Did You Know?

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A 2003 study by the National Health Institute resolved that mesothelioma should be viewed as an occupational disease. Occupational asbestos exposure had a clear impact on the development of cancer in merchant mariners, but there is help for those who were exposed.

Because mesothelioma symptoms can take decades to appear, patients are usually not diagnosed until many years after they were exposed to asbestos on the job. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have options.

Speak with a mesothelioma attorney as soon as possible to learn more about your compensation options and how you can get justice for you and your family. Call the Mesothelioma Justice Network at (855) 214-1555.

Author:Stephanie Kidd

Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

Last modified: May 22, 2019

View 3 Sources
  1. “Merchant Marine.” Retrieved from Accessed on April 27, 2018.
  2. Kaiser Permanente. “In defense of Henry J. Kaiser’s World War II ship quality.” Retrieved from Accessed on April 27, 2018.
  3. US Department of Transportation. “State of the United States’ Merchant Fleet in Foreign Commerce.” Retrieved from Accessed on April 27, 2018.
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